Close this search box.

Supportive Advice

Mark Sparks | November 2011


   Teachers often ask flutists for support, but what does that really mean? It sounds a bit like military jargon, and it brings to mind some vague thoughts about the diaphragm. Whether you stick your tummy out or pull it in, however, nothing seems to actually change. Often in desperation flutists just blow harder.
   Although it seems confusing, support is actually a pretty decent word. I think of support as feeding or holding up the note, or providing the note’s vital energy. Practically speaking, support does require blowing harder in order to keep the air moving through the embouchure aperture at a faster speed. This air feeds the note. Simply put, to increase support, blow harder but do not let too much air out. Find the right balance of air amount and air speed for each note and dynamic, and (enter heavenly chorus) you have found the note’s vital energy.
   Much is made of trying to control the diaphragm, the body’s powerful involuntary breathing muscle. Telling the diaphragm to do something is like telling a cat to play fetch the ball. It is not going to happen. You may feel some additional abdominal pressure from diaphragmatic action when blowing harder, and that is natural. However, step away from the controls. The diaphragm is on a mission, and it knows what to do.
   Try a B natural above the staff, at a solid mezzo-forte. The resistance is right when you feel like you are pushing the note against something. Keep the throat relaxed and open. Do not tense up the abdominal muscles or pull the stomach inwards. However, do not push the stomach out either. Just blow hard, feel the resistance, and go with it.
   Try this entertaining and inexpensive activity: first put the flute down and cease playing thousands of notes. Then, take a large diameter drinking straw (the kind that comes with the mocha frap with whipped cream) and blow through the straw to move a piece of folded paper across a table. Then using your finger, slightly cover the opening of the straw (imitating the aperture). With the straw open, the paper moves easily. The amount of air is high and pressure is low as when flutists play a lower note. When the opening of the straw is covered partially, the person must blow harder to move the paper. Viva la resistance. This compares to using more support when you want to play higher or softer without the pitch going flat. To move the paper at the same speed requires a balance of the amount of air and pressure. For added thrills, move the straw closer or further away from the paper, or try it in a favorite yoga position.
   I think the flute only has two registers. The high register starts above the staff, and the low starts in the staff –  end of story. In the high register flutists need more air pressure, and in the low they need less. If your high register is unfocused, or tends to fall into the low, use more air pressure. In other words blow harder against a smaller aperture as with the straw exercise. 
For the low register, use a larger aperture for slow air speed and low resistance. Drop the air into the flute. As you descend through the range you actually reduce support quite drastically. The lowest notes need very little air pressure. F# at the top of the staff is negotiable.
   I make embouchure changes mostly with the lower lip and moderate jaw motions. The upper lip dutifully follows along. Move the jaw far forward for playing softly. Maybe pucker up a bit, as if kissing your Mom on the cheek. Slacken the jaw for loud notes and allow the upper lip to dominate, especially in the low notes. Keep the embouchure relaxed, especially at the corners; the lips should never be rigid and motions are smooth. Enjoy those long tones. In the high register, higher resistance is generally a good thing. This may require flutists to blow harder and use more energy than they are used to.
   The next part of the story is that the amount flutists cover the blow hole with the lower lip affects the pressure of the air going into the flute and creates another level of resistance. Cover about one-third of the blow hole with the lower lip. Covering more increases pressure, so you do not have to blow as hard. Beware as this tempting vice can be used as a false support and result in a myriad of ills. These might include limited dynamic range, flatness, pinched tone, loss of resonance, and eventual frustration if you like any variety of tone color. If my tone has a stuffy feel, I do a quick check for this in the mirror. Be ever vigilant.
   When the blow hole is uncovered, it reduces secondary air pressure, which will encourage increased support (air volume and resistance) and results in a bigger, freer tone. This is good, but if flutists uncover too much all the time it may sound like a vacuum cleaner and lack focus, especially in a soft dynamic. Find the middle ground and make subtle but well-defined adjustments from there. Keep the air column high and blow across the instrument. Roll towards you slightly for the soft notes but watch out for flatness. Roll the flute away a bit for the loud notes. Blow down and do not go sharp. Use a tuner to keep your bearings, and a good therapist to keep from going crazy.
   Proper breathing and embouchure relaxation really matter too. Good position and posture are crucial. Cover the hole evenly when placing the flute on the lower lip (by the way, I prefer a little more northerly on the fleshy part, instead of to the south just below), and keep the instrument at a right angle to the nose. The aperture should form an even ellipse if possible. If it is not in the middle, use whatever works. Practice with a mirror. Stand up straight and keep the chin tucked in a bit.
   Resistance is best in moderation. Some flutes and head joints are more resistant than others. They may feel stuffy and have higher resistance. If you like to uncover the hole and blow really hard, this type of instrument may be a good choice. Lower-resistance instruments can be fun, easy-to-play, responsive, and require less air pressure. They can also imitate horror-flick screaming but may lack resonance, dynamic range, and projection.
   As you balance air volume and pressure, this ultimately means that you let resistance do the heavy lifting for you. As flutists discover the efficiency of air speed, phrases can be longer. You find yourself getting into the Zen of resonance. You should try to find the perfect resistance for every note on your instrument. Feel the meaning of support deep in your bones. Whether you are a young flutist, teacher, or budding virtuoso, an understanding of this crucial element can eventually lead to the promised land of your true sound.